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Working On Your Own Car Feels Super Cool Until You Break Your First Bolt

Sunday 30th July 2017 by Derek Kraneveldt

I still feel so, so stupid.

Back at the start of May, Mikaela and I decided that it was time to get a second vehicle. We’d lived in Vancouver for about a year and a half at this point, and for most of that time, having a single vehicle was working quite well (a 2016 Kia Soul SX, which we freaking love, if anyone is curious).

In December of last year, we moved from Vancouver proper, which was about a five minute walk from my current day job, to the Burquitlam area, about a 45 minute drive in medium-heavy traffic from my current day job. When we decided to move, we were under the impression that we’d very quickly be needing a much larger space than the studio we were living in, and moving out here was the only real way to get a decent-sized place and have it remain semi-affordable. On most days, I transited each way to work, which was 90+ minutes each way, depending on timing (Mikaela’s transit would have been even longer if we did things the other way around). If Mikaela wasn’t working or our schedules jived, Mikaela would drop me off on her way to work, or pick me up on her way out, and I’d often take the car on days that Mikaela wasn’t working. It could be pretty annoying at times, and also led to us putting more kilometres on our single car in one year, than were put on my previous car in three and a half.

So, after five months of spending 15+ hours per week of getting two and from work, obtaining another vehicle was in order. Mikaela knew that I loved the Mazda MX-5 Miata, so we decided that we’d wait for a decent looking, lower-end, affordable, probably red one to pop up. We figured that we could only spend a few grand, and we knew that it wouldn’t get us very far, but if it could be in decent shape and get me from A to B without much trouble, we’d be happy.

It didn’t take that long, actually. One afternoon, we were back on Vancouver Island visiting Mikaela’s mom when a unit that I’d seen on Facebook for some time popped up on Craigslist for a significantly lower price. It had been on the market for a few months at this point from the earliest post that I could see, and so we’d decided that, since we were just 20 minutes away, we’d go and check it out.

The Miata was from 1990 (as old as I am), red, and automatic (the only real downside, as Mikaela especially was hoping that our next car would be standard, and it’s almost impossible to get standard new cars, plus who wants an automatic roadster). The story was pretty simple, the current owner’s had bought it a few months back for his wife who had been wanting a convertible for some time. He drove it home, she didn’t like it, so he put it up for sale.

As it’s an automatic, it was a hard sell for his original asking price, so he wasn’t seeing much interest. The body looked like it was in good shape (aside from needing a detail), had minimal rust, and was in our price range.

Long story short, we liked it, jumped the gun and didn’t get a pre-purchase inspection (not that I really think there was too much wrong with it), bought it, and brought it home.

I’m a bit tall for it but I don’t even care.

For this car, we decided that we’d try to do most of the work that was needed (as it popped up) ourselves. I’d always been interested in working on my own vehicle, but hadn’t really tried doing it with past vehicles. I really don’t know why – in a past life I’d done countless iPhone and Mac repairs and was confident in that, but touching an engine always terrified me. In terms of doing our own repairs, there were a could of great things about the Miata specifically. First, it’s an enthusiast’s car. People have loved this car from the start, and continue to love them to this day. This means that for every. little. thing that you could possibly want to do to the car, there are a myriad of tutorials and videos detailing exactly what you’re looking for (and exactly on your car). It’s amazing. Even if you’re a complete novice like me and want to know specifically how to jack up your car, you’ll find a dozen videos for it on YouTube. Second, these cars did not change very much internally for a very long time, and that fact, plus just how popular these cars remain, mean that parts are pretty cheap. Especially right now, cheap is good.

I was immediately so appreciative about this car. Driving with the top down is really like nothing else, the car seemed to run pretty well, seems pretty good on gas (we began tracking its fuel economy with Fuelly’s GasTracker+ app, and it seems to be as efficient as it was originally rated). Even better than all of that, my 3.5+ hour daily commute turned into 1.5 hours tops. While we waited for tools to arrive (jacks, jack stands, wrenches/sockets), we took the car to a shop to install some replacement rear shocks (which the car included) and to do a post-purchase inspection which didn’t really tell us anything that we didn’t already know.

Tools eventually arrived, and we got to work on few very simple things: air filter, bleeding brakes, fixing the emergency brake (which didn’t work when we got the car), replacing super annoying blown headrest speakers, fixing various rattles around the vehicle, attempting to fix a slightly leaky tear in the soft top, Mikaela fixing a huge tear in the zipper of the soft top, and a few other things (not many of those actually seem that mechanical, now that I think about it).

I was poking around under the hood one day when I noticed a little bit of an oil leak at the back of the engine block. I was a little terrified as I know how expensive things like head gaskets can be (and I have the nickname Worst Case Kraneveldt as the worst case scenario is what I immediately jump to 100% of the time), but after doing some research online, it seemed as though the area that I could feel the oil actually had a cheap and easy to replace seal, and so I started here.

The part was called the CAS O-Ring, a seal that connects to the Cam Angle Sensor, which over time will harden and begin to leak oil This can put oil onto the heater core hoses directly below it, which can blow when you’re driving and be bad news. The repair consists of a single bolt (which is certainly a bit annoying to get to as it’s directly on the back of the block and there isn’t a lot of room to work with), you then shimmy out the CAS, replace the O-Ring (I got like 20 of these for about $5 on Amazon), shimmy the CAS back in (much, much harder than taking it out), re-bolt the bolt, and you’re done. It took about a half an hour, and we saved what the internet estimated to be $150 over taking it to a mechanic.

A couple of days back, I popped the hood again to ensure that the oil was no longer leaking. At this point, I noticed that the CAS was a bit loose and that it could be turned pretty easily by hand. I quickly looked online, and apparently this could be bad news to drive like this. The CAS controls the ignition timing of the engine, and apparently if the CAS slipped and the timing was adjusted, best case scenario the engine would lose power, and worst case scenario there could be some sort of detonation. Shit.

I got up early the next morning (so that I could do what I needed to do before driving to work), anticipating that I’d remove and re-insert the bolt and that everything would be cool. I grabbed my tools (just a 12mm socket required for this one), popped the hood, removed the bolt (and took a look at the threads for any metal shavings, which could mean that the bolt had been cross-threaded), and started ratcheting it back in (not even overly tight) and SNAP.  It actually wasn’t loud at all, the act of the bolt snapping was essentially silent – all of a sudden the tension was gone completely as my fist hit the engine block.

You can’t see the bolt here, because it’s not in a visible area.

I whispered numerous profanities under my breath as I realized what I’d just done. This bolt, which needs to be in place to drive the car, and which is on the back of the engine block and completely blind, and which has a very, very small area to work with.

At this point, I felt like I was going to throw up, and also like I was going to cry. I had absolutely no time to even look at it, as because I now needed to transit to work, I would already be a half hour late. I tucked the tools inside the door and walked as fast as I could to the bus stop. I texted Mikaela that I’d made it much worse, and that we might only have one car again, and made my way to work.

Everything that I’d Googled during my commute talked about tapping the break or using something called an “Easy Out”, none of which would be possible due to the limited space available. That day at work was awful, as I simply couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to puke, and the incredible sadness and guilt that I’d felt for causing this was not going away. I posted to a couple of forums and groups, most of which didn’t seem as freaked out as I was (naturally, as it wasn’t their car), but only one person told me that it was time to part it out.  Everyone else simply said to bring it into the shop and see what they could do.

To this point, that hasn’t happened. I intended to finally take a look at the damage that night, but chickened out when I got home and played video games instead. I intended to take a look last night as well, but was beginning to finally feel a bit better about the whole ordeal and wanted to have a decent night, so I didn’t even look at it. Today, I had part two of a root canal, so after that I’m not doing anything.

I don’t know when I’ll have the heart to take another look, or to get it towed to the shop, but I anticipate that my return to transit will start feeling old pretty soon.

I guess all I really need to say is, you’ll never feel quite as stupid as you do when you snap your first bolt.

Currently the bane of my existence.
Derek Kraneveldt

Derek Kraneveldt is Geekscape's managing editor. A media, comic, and technology enthusiast, he's happy to call Geekscape home. Looking for more from Derek? Keep up with him on twitter or email him here!

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  • Erik Dossett

    So as a former mechanic I think step one is try removing the sensor and see if a stub of the bolt is sticking out. Also we all have these new fangled mini spy cameras now so stick your phone back there with the flash on and take a half dozen pics right off. And show us the best of them.